As a friend of mine once said, the only thing better than owning a nice boat is having a good friend who owns one. None of the headaches, none of the problems, none of the responsibility but all the fun when asked out to enjoy the water. But what happens when your friend, the owner and skipper, is suddenly injured, becomes ill, our worse yet, falls overboard? You were just along for the ride, you don’t know anything about the boat, about what to do or how to do it – but suddenly YOU are in charge. Suddenly, YOU need to know how to run the boat, YOU need to know how to use the emergency equipment, YOU need to know what to do in each situation that requires action. Don’t wait until YOU are suddenly in charge, learn the basics before just “going along for the ride”.

Learn Boating Basics

Even if you don’t own a boat, if you ever go out in one as a passenger, you should know the basics of boating. Even if you’re just going for a ride, if the skipper doesn’t give the passengers an orientation, ask where the emergency equipment is located. Ask the location of the Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), the fire extinguisher(s), emergency signaling devices and other safety gear. Practice throwing PFDs or a line to a pretend person overboard, practice anchoring the boat and getting aboard from the water. Ask about the operation of the boat, how do you start it, how do you stop it and how to use the radio (if equipped). Better yet, even if you don’t own a boat, take a Basic Boating Safety Course . The more time you take to educate yourself the more likely you will be a hero rather than a hindrance, should an emergency arise.

The basics are the same no matter what size the boat you find yourself on; you need to know the location of the Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), the fire extinguisher(s), emergency signaling devices and other safety gear. You also need to know how to operate the VHF radio and how to lower the anchor. These two items may be your lifeline to safety.

Again, it is a good idea to take a Basic Boating Safety Course even if you don’t own a boat. The more time you take to educate yourself the more likely you will be a hero rather than a hindrance, should an emergency arise.

Learn How to Start Manual or Pull Start Outboards

  1. Make sure the shift lever is in the neutral position. This is usually straight up.
  2. If the engine is cold, pull out the choke before attempting to start. If the motor is warm, don’t use the choke unless the engine does not start after a few pulls.
  3. On the throttle control arm, turn the hand grip until the arrow aligns with the start position.
  4. Pull the starter rope slowly until you get resistance from the starter gear, then pull forcefully. Repeat if needed.
  5. When the engine starts, if you used the choke push it in slowly until the engine runs smoothly.
  6. Turn the throttle control arm until the arrow lines up with the run or shift mark.

Warning: Do not stand in the boat to pull the starter rope. If the motor is in gear or the starter just spins, you could loose balance and fall overboard.


Learn How to Start an Electric Start Engine

  1. Squeeze the release lock on the shift/throttle control lever, and make sure it is in the neutral position, usually straight up.
  2. If the engine is cold, move the warm-up lever to the start position.
  3. You may find a choke switch or the choke may operate by pushing the key in which activates an automatic choke.
  4. Hold the key in or use the choke switch and turn to the start position. Release the key or turn off choke switch as soon as the engine starts.
  5. Gradually move the warm-up lever to the run position.
  6. If the engine is warm, use the same procedure with the exception of using the choke, unless the motor fails to start after a few tries.

Learn How to Shift and Steer

Manual or Pull-Start

    1. The throttle arm also acts as a tiller to turn the engine which gives you direction.
    2. Look out for traffic and find out the direction you want to go. Move the throttle arm/tiller in the opposite direction. This pushes the stern of the boat in the direction of the tiller which in turn makes the bow go in the opposite direction.


  1. Turn the throttle arm until the arrow lines up with the run/shift position.
  2. Move the shift lever to forward (or reverse) and turn the throttle handle slowly until a comfortable speed is reached.
Electric Start

  1. Squeeze the release lock on the shift/throttle control lever. Push the lever slowly forward to go forward and pull slowly back to go in reverse. The further forward or back you push the lever the faster the boat will move.
  2. Steering with a wheel is much like a car in that you turn the wheel (helm) in the direction you want to go. Be careful however, because unlike a car, a boat steers from the stern (back) rather than the front as a car does.

boat handling

Warning: Go slowly in reverse to prevent water from spilling in over the transom.

Learn How to Stop

Boats don’t have brakes. They do, however, settle quickly and slow down when power is lowered and the engine put in neutral.Don’t aim the boat at a person in the water or at a dock. If you misjudge the speed of the boat you could cause more damage.

As the boat slows you will loose steering control. Aim the boat where you want to stop before you shift to neutral or shut of the engine. Shift to neutral before you think you should, most novices overshoot their mark. You can always shift back to forward briefly if you fall short of your mark.

Killing manual or pull-start engines

Shift to neutral, turn the throttle handle grip to the stop position and push the button (usually red) labeled stop which kills the engine.

Killing electric start engines

Shift to neutral, turn the key to the left until the engine dies – just like in your car.

Learn Crew Overboard Procedures

Be Calm – You may be the only source of rescue for the person in the water.

Immediately shut down the engine unless you can see that the person in the water is well clear of the boat and will not be hit by the props. Locate the person in the water and keep an eye on them. If they are close enough, throw a PFD or anything that floats in their direction.

If you must, restart the engine and move slowly toward the person from downwind (the wind in your face). You don’t want to drift into the person when you stop the engine. When close enough, throw a PFD or anything that floats and stop the engine.

Once the person in the water has something to help them float, tie one end of a line to the boat and throw the other end of the line to the person in the water. Once the person grabs the line, pull them slowly to the boat.

Try to get a PFD on the person or tie the line under their arms and tie up short to the boat so they can rest. If you can not easily lift the person into the boat it is best not to struggle; call and wait for help. Continuing to try to pull the person into the boat could result in you going overboard.

Lower the anchor to keep from drifting and wait for help.

Learn How To Signal For Help

Certain signals are recognized internationally as distress signals. A few easy to use are:

  1. Raising and lowering your outstretched arms.
  2. Use a mirror to reflect the sun’s rays. On a sunny day the reflection can be seen for miles.
  3. Signal SOS (··· — ···) with a flashlight, whistle or horn.
  4. Light or fire off a distress flare. Be sure to read the directions on the flare and light or fire downwind and over the side of the boat. It is best to do this when in sight of land or another boat. A flare is not all that obvious on a bright, sunny day.
  5. Yell. Your voice will carry a long distance over water.
  6. If equipped, use the VHF radio to place a call on channel 16.

S0 what happens if the owner/skipper is suddenly injured, becomes ill or falls overboard on an inboard boat or, worse yet, a large inboard twin engine? Once again, you were just along for the ride, you don’t know anything about the boat, about what to do or how to do it – but…suddenly YOU are in charge. Suddenly, YOU need to know how to run the boat, YOU need to know how to use the emergency equipment, YOU need to know what to do in each situation that requires action. This is why understanding the basics of before you set foot on any boat is crucial. Whether we want the responsibility or not, we are taking the potential on every time we get on a boat. And since that could mean not just your safety but the safety of others, it’s a serious matter. .

Pay Attention To The Basics

Rather than just sit there in the “co-pilot” seat looking at the sky and the water, look around, ask questions, watch what the owner/skipper does. This article is not intended to make a novice an experienced boat handler but we hope to at least get the inexperienced person to some level of comfort with what he/she sees around them.

Note the typical cockpit layout below. You have electronic equipment such as a VHF radio, Depth Finder, and GPS. You also have the controls and sensors for operating the boat such as the clutches (which shift gears), the throttles (which control the speed of the engines) and the various gauges which you should monitor as you do in your car.


This layout is for a typical twin engine vessel. A single engine will have only one clutch and one throttle. Pay particular attention to the RED knobs on the throttles. They are so marked to make sure that you don’t forget which you are handling. You wouldn’t want to be in a close quarters situation and think you were shifting from reverse to forward while accidentally pushing the throttle forward instead of the clutch. Hint: When operating clutches on a vessel with the above configuration put both hands on them and don’t let go. This will keep you from accidently grabbing the throttles.

Lesson One: How Do Clutches and Throttles Work

throttle The throttles on a boat act like the accelerator on your car with one exception; You shouldn’t operate them with your feet. The throttles, usually marked with RED knobs, are at idle when they are pulled all the way back toward you. As you move them forward, the fuel supply to the engine(s) is increased and, assuming you are in gear, you move faster.
clutch The clutches, with the black knobs, act like your gear shift. When the lever is standing straight up in the middle you are in neutral. When you push the lever forward you are engaging the forward gear and when you pull the lever back you are engaging the reverse gear.

Important: Never change gears without first pulling the throttles to idle speed (neutral)!

Lesson Two: How Does An Anchor Windlass Work

The vessel on which you find yourself suddenly in charge may or may not have an anchor windlass (assists in raising and lowering the anchor by electric motor). If it does not, then the anchoring is fairly straightforward as outlined here . However, if you find yourself on a vessel with an anchor windlass the steps are the same, just the release and retrieval of the anchor are different.

anchor windlass The picture at left is a typical small boat (38′) electric anchor windlass. The first step in operating such a system is to make sure that you have power to the windlass.

Normally, when underway the main breaker to the windlass will be turned on but there is usually a switch in the cockpit which disables the power temporarily. This is so that you don’t accidentally step on the up and down switches on the deck while underway or while handling lines on the bow. Make sure that the cockpit switch is on.

Notice that the anchor rode (chain/line that attaches the anchor to the boat) is cleated off on the port side to secure the anchor up and that the remainder of the rode leads through the “hawspipe” (to the left of the “UP” switch) into the anchor locker.

The first step to lowering the anchor is to remove the cap from the hawespipe. As a rule of thumb, you want to put out anchor rode which is 7 to 10 times the water depth. Pull enough anchor rode out of the locker and lay it out neatly up and down the deck.

Next, uncleat the anchor rode on the port cleat which was holding the anchor securely and recleat the rode at the maximum amount of scope you expect to let out. Make sure the boat is completely stopped and, once the rode is cleated, you simply step on the down button and the windlass will lower the anchor. Make sure that you keep your hands and feet clear so you don’t get tangled in the anchor rode and get pulled off the vessel.

Lesson Three: How Does A VHF Radio Work

The vessel’s VHF radio is fairly simple to operate and if the owner/skipper was operating legally, it should already be tuned to channel 16 which is the hailing and distress frequency. For more information on VHF radio procedures look at Marine Radio Procedures in the Nautical Know How Tips Archive. In order to call for assistance, hold down the “transmit” button on the side of the microphone and speak directly into the mike. Once you have delivered your message, release the button and wait for a response.

Let’s explore two different scenarios in which you might find yourself. Whether you are in a single engine or twin engine boat really doesn’t matter. As was mentioned above, we aren’t going to make you boat handlers, just emergency situation solvers.

Situation One

You have just left the marina and are heading out for a day of coastal cruising. The owner is operating the boat through the well marked channel and has explained to you that it is important to keep within the channel which has sufficient depth to safely operate. He/she has shown you how to read the depth finder and you find that the channel has a consistent depth of 8 feet.

Suddenly the owner, who doesn’t look so good all of a sudden, collapses and falls out of the chair behind the wheel. What should you do?

Your first reaction should be to try and get the owner, now victim, to acknowledge his or her situation. Ask if they are okay. Even if they are unconscious and not breathing, there is nothing you can do until you have control of the boat.

You should first take off all power and shift to neutral. While the boat coasts to a stop try to steer toward the edge of the channel. Assuming you are not in immediate danger of drifting out of the channel or running into another vessel, check the condition of the victim again.

Let’s assume they have simply fainted and are still breathing and have a pulse. Attempt to contact the marina that you just left via VHF radio and advise them of the situation. Explain that you are not experienced and that you need immediate assistance. Give them your location by noting the latitude and longitude on your GPS or simply note the channel marker number that you might be closest to.

Depending on your comfort level in actually operating the vessel, you should either consider anchoring, tending to the victim and waiting for help or putting the vessel in forward and turning the vessel to return to the marina. If you chose the latter, do so under control. You don’t necessarily need to go at full idle but don’t overdo the speed. Remember, boats don’t have brakes and you can only stop them by running into something, running aground, coasting to a stop in neutral, or shifting to reverse at full idle.

Situation Two

Beneteau Oceanis 38 Weekender

You are offshore, within sight of land, and headed for a favorite fishing spot that the owner has programmed into the GPS. In this case the owner is a he and he tells you to take the wheel while he goes to relieve himself. No problem, anyone can steer a boat- so you settle in as commanded.

The water is not too rough but an occasional wave that is considerably bigger than the rest comes along and tosses the boat slightly. Suddenly you hear a scream and a splash and look aft to find that the owner was thrown overboard off the stern by that last unexpected wave. What should you do?

You should first pull the throttles to idle and simultaneously shift the clutches to neutral. Immediately throw the Type IV throwable device in the direction of the victim in the water. Try to keep focused on the individual in the water. Don’t lose sight of him.

Once you have something that floats in the water in the vicinity of the victim it is time to attempt the rescue. After making sure the victim is clear of the props, shift the clutch(s) into forward and at idle speed make a U-turn and head back toward the victim in the water.

Make sure to turn the bow toward a person in the water, swinging the stern (and props) away from them. Since he is conscious and can swim, don’t get too close. Approach from downwind so that he floats down to you, not the boat floating down on the victim.

Be sure to shift to neutral well before approaching the victim and coast to a stop short of him. From here, try to throw a line and a PFD to the victim in the water. Once you have him attached to the boat, DO NOT use the clutches.


The two scenarios above were dangerous but obviously could have been much worse. For instance, what if the person in the first scenario wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse and what if you didn’t notice the person in the second scenario go overboard? What would you do then? Give it some thought, it could happen.